This article first posted in February of 2014
What’s most successful when it appears to be something it’s not? Astroturf. As in fake grassroots.
The many ways that corporations, special interests and political interests of all stripes exploit media and the Internet to perpetuate astroturf is ever-expanding. Surreptitious astroturf methods are now more important to these interests than traditional lobbying of Congress. There’s an entire PR industry built around it in Washington.
Below are the top ten astroturfers as viewed by respondents in an informal, non-scientific survey.*
[box]TOP 10 ASTROTURFERS
1. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown
2. Media Matters for America
3. University of California Hastings Professor Dorit Rubenstein Reiss and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Dr. Paul Offit
4. “Science” Blogs such as: Skeptic.com, Skepchick.org, Scienceblogs.com (Respectful Insolence), Popsci.com and SkepticalRaptors.com
5. Mother Jones
6. Salon.com and Vox.com
7. White House press briefings and press secretary Josh Earnest
8. Daily Kos and The Huffington Post
9. CNN, NBC, New York Times, Politico and Talking Points Memo (TPM)
10. MSNBC, Slate.com, Los Angeles Times and Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and Jon Stewart.[/box]
Astroturfers often disguise themselves and publish blogs, write letters to the editor, produce ads, start non-profits, establish Facebook and Twitter accounts, edit Wikipedia pages or simply post comments online to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking. They use their partners in blogs and in the news media in an attempt to lend an air of legitimacy or impartiality to their efforts.
Astroturf’s biggest accomplishment is when it crosses over into semi-trusted news organizations that unquestioningly cite or copy it.
[button link="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bYAQ-ZZtEU"]Watch my TEDx talk on astroturf at the University of Nevada, Reno[/button]
The whole point of astroturf is to try to convince you there’s widespread support for or against an agenda when there’s not.
The language of astroturfers and propagandists includes trademark inflammatory terms such as: anti, nutty, quack, crank, pseudo-science, debunking, conspiracy theory, deniers and junk science. Sometimes astroturfers claim to “debunk myths” that aren’t myths at all. They declare debates over that aren’t over. They claim that “everybody agrees” when everyone doesn’t agree. They aim to make you think you’re an outlier when you’re not.
Astroturfers and propagandists tend to attack and controversialize the news organizations, personalities and people surrounding an issue rather than sticking to the facts. They try to censor and silence topics and speakers rather than engage them. And most of all, they reserve all their expressed skepticism for those who expose wrongdoing rather than the wrongdoers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.
Much of this sounds familiar to many Americans. The results of an informal, non-scientific poll identify groups related to Gun Safety Action Fund, Inc. as top Astroturf efforts. These groups include Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown, Everytown for Gun Safety, Gun Sense, It’s Time for Gun Sense in America, Gun Sense Voter, I’m a Gun Sense Voter, Moms Take the Hill and Stroller Jam.
The groups present themselves as grassroots organizations of “mayors, moms survivors and everyday Americans.” They are spearheaded by former New York Mayor and multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and former PR professional and mother Shannon Watts. Last year, they announced a $50 million political campaign to try to counter the efforts of the formidable gun rights lobby.
Second to the gun control groups in being identified as a top disseminator of astroturf and propaganda is the controversial, left wing blog Media Matters for America with the stated goal of waging “guerrilla warfare and sabotage” against FOX News. More broadly, Media Matters acts on behalf of the interests of Hillary Clinton and the Obama Administration, sometimes in direct consultation with Obama officials. It was founded by the troubled Democratic political operative David Brock, who formed the super-Political Action Committee (PAC) American Bridge that raised funds to help elect liberal Democrats to Congress. Brock also served on the board of the super-PAC Priorities USA, which announced support for Hillary Clinton’s potential run for president.
A close third is an array of blogs that use words such as “science” and “skeptic” in their titles or propaganda in an attempt to portray an image of neutrality and logic when they are often fighting established science and serving pro-pharmaceutical industry agendas. These include: ScienceBlogs.com (using the pseudonym “Orac”); vaccine inventor Dr. Paul Offit of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who earned an undisclosed fortune from Merck pharmaceuticals; and his apparent replacement in trolling blogs Dorit Rubenstein Reiss. She is a law professor at the University of California Hastings and a frequent contributor to SkepticalRaptors.com.
A final category frequently mentioned is quasi-news organizations that sometimes throw readers off the astroturf trail because they publish some legitimate news-type or pop-culture stories, but mix in propaganda or astroturf. These sources tend to be highly-cited by the unquestioning traditional news media either to advance an agenda, or in the media's attempt to be hip and edgy or “get clicks.”
Sometimes, astroturf is in the eye of the beholder. But no matter how you see it, there is no short supply.
[box]Honorable Mention Astorturfers as identified by respondents:
ABC, CBS, FOX, Townhall.com, Daily Caller, Think Progress, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Global Warming, The National Rifle Association, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Republicans making us believe Jeb Bush is strongly favored as the next Republican candidate for president,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, Benghazi, Obama describing ISIS as “JV team,” George Soros, the Koch Brothers, Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, Rush Limbaugh, “Too Big to Fail” Banks, US Treasury, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Al Sharpton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, hashtags, Saturday Night Live Weekend Update, the Kennedy Family, Rolling Stone, Ezekiel Emmanuel, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow producer Steve Benen, National Public Radio (NPR), Bill Moyers, Occupy Wall Street, Moveon.org, Wikipedia, Center for American Progress, Snopes, Every Child by Two, American Academy of Pediatrics, Voices for Vaccines, BuzzFeed, Wired, The New Republic and Forbes.com.[/box]
*The results represent 169 Twitter respondents who answered a public query either directly or through direct message.